I’ve always had an interest in astro-photography, having previously taken star trail photos and of course, the moon. One subject I hadn’t yet tackled yet was the milky way, or at least the slim, tiny portion that’s visible from Earth.
The most important thing you need for successful astro-photography is a clear, dark sky. Knowing that I was going to spending a few nights in Algonquin Provincial Park, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.
I did some research online, finding a few helpful articles. Even with a relatively dark sky, the band of dense stars is faint and hard to make out with the naked eye. Enter a smartphone app, Sky Guide, to help me out. Run the app, point is at the sky, and it tells you in real time what you’re looking at. The greatest thing about the app is the ability to fast forward in time, to see where celestial objects will be, say, four hours from now. As a starting point, I knew that I needed to be facing south to see the milky way.
The first day at Algonquin, I staked out a spot near a river and dam that faced south over the water. Sky Guide told me that the moon would be out, and it would be full. A full moon, according to my research, is bad; bye-bye dark sky. Still, I tried it out, and sure enough, I ended up with dim star points on a gray sky. The location was less than ideal, too, as the close trees obscured much of the milky way.
I figured that with the moon being full and only starting to wane, my hopes of a good shot were diminished. The next two days at the park brought rain and cloud cover.
On day five, I spent the sunset taking photos at our campground’s beach (which faced north). While waiting for dusk, I looked again at the Sky Guide app to see what other opportunities might be in store for my final night before returning to the light polluted city. Sunset was just before 9 pm. I fast forwarded the time to 10 pm and turned my phone south to see a projection of the milky way. I then tried to locate the moon. Nowhere in the sky. What’s this? It’s below the horizon until after 11 pm!
So, I had a clear night and an invisible moon. The third thing I needed was a clear view south. I checked the park map for a close by location. The neighbouring campground, Whitefish Lake, had a south facing beach. Perfect!
Excited, I ventured out after dark and arrived at Whitefish Lake just after 10 pm. The beach was vacant and dark. It was Monday night, and the campground was relatively empty.
Shooting in the dark has its challenges. You can’t see your framing or if your horizon is straight. The first few photos I took were slanted and had more lake than sky, but the milky way was unmistakable. Anyway, with exposures lasting only 30 seconds, it was easy to have trial and error, unlike a star trail shot which can last 30 minutes or longer before you know whether you had success.
It took several tries before I finalized the framing; obviously, I wanted a ton of sky and hardly any lake.
The most surprising thing about the photo was the yellow glow behind the trees. Even though the sun had set over an hour ago, the long exposure picked up and amplified the latent bit of sunlight that was invisible to the naked eye. Truly, it is darkest just before the dawn.
The final shot didn’t take much post-processing; a small colour adjustment to make it cooler, some sharpening, and a slight straightening.
On the whole, planning and access to the Sky Guide app helped make this venture a success.